Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Prove Your Greatness: The Score by The Fugees

Allmusic describes Alternative Rap as a genre of music whose practitioners "refuse to conform to any traditional stereotypes of rap...." They often "blur genres, drawing equally from funk and pop/rock, as well as jazz, soul, reggae, and even folk." The entry goes on to note that "most alternative rap groups are embraced primarily by alternative rock fans, not hip-hop or pop audiences." That seems like an apt description to me. I am not a member of the hip-hop audience, but have long admired the most successful Alternative Rap album of the 1990s: the Fugees' second album, The Score.

With its witty rhymes, left-field samples (read: the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin"), and "socially conscious" theme, The Score was out of step with the mainstream gangsta rap of 1996. It still became a massive success, thanks, in part, to its superlative singles "Fu-Gee-La," "Ready or Not," and (the, at the time, inescapable) "Killing Me Softly." After its release, anticipation was high for a follow-up that, ultimately, never came. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill went on to release their own records that established them as superstar solo artists, while Pras Michel went on to do soundtrack and production work.

The Score is not a concept album, but it plays like one. For one, it's repeatedly self-referential: it begins with an intro that incorporates all of the song titles and themes of the album; the mid-album title track is a pastiche of samples from the record. The short sketches that begin each track further unify the record, giving it an almost cinematic feel. (Of course, the Fugees go out of their way to invoke the movies. The album alludes to a number of films, most frequently The Godfather.) Taken as a whole, The Score comes off as an album about the rap genre: its subjects (inner-city life, racism, police brutality), its myth and facade ("Cowboys" and "The Mask"), and its members ("How Many Mics" and "Ready or Not").

On second listening, the album still holds up for two reasons: hooks and rhymes. In many ways, The Score is a spiritual successor to the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. The songs on both records are hook-laden, and the best hooks are stolen. But the Fugees have impeccable taste. And, like the Beasties, their theft spans disparate genres. Their rhymes, on the other hand, are as original as their hooks are borrowed. They are smart, biting, and often funny. Unfortunately, they are also riddled with topical references that sound dated to modern ears (sorry, Newt).

For as good as it is, elements of The Score can sometimes grate. The chorus of "The Beast," for example, has Jean using his voice to imitate (what I think is supposed to be) a police siren. It makes me want to skip ahead, but the raps on the song are so good that I usually stick with it. The nadir of the album is the cringe-worthy "Chinese Restaurant" sketch. What's so offensive is not the crude stereotypes it employs, but how unfunny and awkward it is.

The album is notable for featuring two sung cover versions, "Killing Me Softly" and "No Woman, No Cry." The former is still the revelatory showstopper it was in 1996. Even the strongest material on Hill's (overrated) solo album never topped it. The latter is a wholly unnecessary, but pleasant, cover of a song everyone already knows. But, a great song is a great song, and this one works as the penultimate track of the album.

The Score deserves its classic status by virtue of its singles, and the excellent album tracks "How Many Mics" and "Zealots." Even at its worst, the album comes off as it did 12 years ago: confident, smart, and tuneful.